Better off waiting on liquor board legislation [Editorial]

January 28, 2014|Editorial from The Aegis

The Harford County Liquor Control Board is unique among government entities in the county. It is established as a function of state law, but its members are appointed by the county executive.

It is empowered to both enforce and adjudicate a book of county-specific laws that are enacted by the Maryland General Assembly.

It is financially self-sufficient, funded through the license fees paid by the businesses in the county authorized to sell alcoholic beverages.

And, considering its range of responsibilities, it is fairly tiny as government agencies go, having an administrator, a secretary, two or three inspectors at any given time and a lawyer on retainer. The appointed members of the board are volunteers from the community, albeit often volunteers with further political ambitions.

For many years, the board has functioned in relative harmony with its administrator, a position that is responsible for overseeing the coordinating of the efforts of the inspectors, and also hearings before the board to mete out justice when inspectors find alleged wrong-doing.

Over the past year or so, however, an adversarial relationship between the board and the previous administrator had evolved and, as a result, the appointed members of the liquor board are seeking local legislation that would allow the board to hire and fire the person in the administrator person at will.

Generally speaking, at-will appointments are the way of the world of top government office. No one expects a new governor or president to keep the previous executive's chief of staff, and chiefs of staff are often forced out of office when they have a parting of the ways with the executive.

There's good reason for this: elected officials and the people they appoint are, at least in theory, closer to expressing the will of the voters and the community at large than a bunch of career bureaucrats.

There's also good reason for protections to be in place for civil servants who operate below a certain level, namely to protect loyal and competent people from being fired by a new regime to open up jobs for a bunch of unqualified political lackeys.

Thus, the question becomes: Is the liquor board administrator local civil service post filled by a competent administrator who should be fired only for cause, or does that post have a political component to it that necessitates it being an at-will position?

This, however, isn't the question likely to be addressed when the bill granting at-will firing authority comes up for consideration. Rather, the dispute between the liquor board and the administrator hired by a previous incarnation of that board will be front and center.

Generally speaking, enacting permanent laws based on fleeting personal disputes is a bad idea. Until it becomes more clear that the kind of relationship that had existed between the board and the administrator for many years is no longer practical, the legislature would do well to take no action on the matter until the situation has had a chance to settle.

Conveniently, the local delegation to Annapolis should have no trouble taking no action as it is the one area in which it excels.

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